I didn't expect the meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump at NATO this morning to resonate with me on a deep, personal level. Why should I? We’ve seen it all before, haven’t we? World leaders (usually white men) sit down and speak in front of TV cameras, assuming the strangely spread-out, tie-between-the-thighs stance that passes as a power pose these days, at various summits across the world, and we feel nothing. Words are exchanged. Headlines are written. The world moves collectively on.
But today, something different happened. Macron arrived, having previously decried NATO’s “brain death” – a comment he stood by in front of Trump, even though the US president had already publicly called it “nasty”. He sat beside the president, perhaps somewhat uncomfortably, and they started what should have been an unremarkable conversation. But then the topic of Isis fighters came up – and Macron snapped.
It was a presidential snap, but a snap nonetheless.
After a journalist asked whether France should bring French Isis fighters back home, Trump turned to Macron and jokingly – once upon a time, the US president joking about Isis fighters would have been headline news, but Trump has been in the White House for almost three years and we’ve grown sadly accustomed to such highjinks – asked his French counterpart: "Would you like some nice Isis fighters? You can take everyone you want.”
For a moment, cast aside the obvious questions Trump’s comments raise (what does “you can take everyone you want” even mean? Why did Trump think this quip was in any way appropriate, mere days after Isis claimed responsibility for the London Bridge knife attack? Did he really expect Macron to go along with this baffling attempt at a joke? Did he actually expect a laugh, or was this barely concealed aggression?) and focus instead on the French president’s retort.
Eyebrows raised, three deeps creases on his forehead, Macron, in his trademark heavily accented English, urged the supposed leader of the free world: “Let’s be serious.” He then gave a longer answer, telling Trump and the assembled press: “It is true you have fighters coming from Europe but this is a tiny minority and I think the number one priority, because it's not finished, is to get rid of Isis and terrorist groups. This is our number one priority and it's not yet done.”
French people tend to be wary of what they call petites phrases (“little sentences”) in politics. Basically, petites phrases are tiny, memorable snippets taken from famous political addresses (or more casual exchanges, like when then-president Nicolas Sarkozy told a member of the public who had declined to shake his hand: “Get lost, you moron!”) Those flourishes of rhetoric usually appear in newspaper headlines precisely because they are intended to. They then bleed into common parlance, becoming shorthand for a moment in political history.
Macron’s “let’s be serious” deserves a prime spot in the petites phrases pantheon, despite barely counting as rhetoric. Those three words were the apparent result of unscripted exasperation, something you rarely get to witness in politics – particularly in a context as official as a NATO summit. They can also be conveniently applied to all of Trump’s presidency so far. Brett Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court? Let’s be serious. Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest ever? Let’s be serious. There were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville? Let’s be serious. The travel ban? “Covfefe”? Ukraine? Children getting detained at the US-Mexico border? Let’s! Be! Serious!
There was a time when Macron seemed determined to foster what The New York Times deemed an “unlikely friendship” with his American counterpart. Trump’s visit to Paris on Bastille Day 2017, when Macron pledged that “nothing” would ever separate France from the US, is a standout moment from that time. And in April 2018, Trump greeted Macron with an air-kiss on the cheek (the traditional French greeting), then said of the French president: “I like him a lot.”
As a French national living in the US, watching Macron cozying to Trump always left a bitter taste in my mouth. Trump had been in the White House for four months when Macron assumed office in Paris. Macron’s apparent determination to make nice with Trump seemed hopelessly naive and wholly misguided. He reminded me, in a way, of the people who swore, shortly after Trump’s election, that the former real estate tycoon wouldn’t be that bad. Well, guess what? He was that bad. In many ways, he’s been even worse than we thought. And it seems that Macron has finally reckoned with that one fundamental truth: there’s no making friends with Trump. All you can do is stare in disbelief, furrow your brow, and ask him to please be serious, Mr President, we're at a NATO summit talking about Isis for God's sake.
Of course, it’s important to remember that it’s infinitely easy to look presidential next to someone as volatile as Trump. That’s why it’s always strange for me to comment on Macron in an international context: the man isn’t incredibly popular in France right now, with good reason (we could talk about the yellow vests movement or Macron’s incredibly problematic rhetoric on work and unemployment, to only cite two examples). I remain convinced that we need to hold our politicians to higher standards than just “better than Trump”.
Still, Macron’s decision to refute Trump’s claims about Isis — to be brave enough to call him out for spreading falsehoods about Isis being "done", and to face the problem of his lack of seriousness and political gravity head-on — was undeniably statesmanlike. The era of cringey Bastille Day meetings and awkward air-kisses seems over. And to that, I say: hourra.